Context is all. from the novel The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood brings a curious topic into light and presents a challenging question: Is there no such thing as truth?

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Sriram A

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“Context is all.” from the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood brings a curious topic into light and presents a challenging question: Is there no such thing as truth?  This inquiry deserves much thought and contemplation regarding definitions of truth and context and how they are inter-related. The problems of knowledge that arise from such situations are:

  1. What do we mean by a contextual framework?
  2. Are the so called “absolute truths” completely independent of context?
  3. What is the role of context in determining the truth?
  4. Does the nature of truth attained depend on the truth’s dependence or independence of context?
  5. Can there really be existent a truth devoid of all contexts?

Let me start by defining context. Noel Williams(1) writes: Context may refer to the following:

  • The linguistic context
  • The physical situation (time, place, setting, speaker etc);
  • The historical circumstances leading to the communication
  • Ethnic Background
  • Cultural Beliefs
  • Personal Bias

My definition of context will also encompass all these criteria. It is important to note that ways of knowing act only as impulses to attain truth and their dependence on context is of negligible importance. My discussion will focus on how truths in different areas of knowledge are context dependent. I start my discussion by analyzing the few truths, for example those given to us by mathematics and pure science that are considered to be absolute truths devoid of all contexts.

Consider the statement, “1+1=2”. Given Peano’s axioms for arithmetic(2), this statement can easily be proven. Does this mean it is a universal truth? I consider two ways of interpreting the statement. One interpretation is that it is a formal sequence of symbols that are provable using formal rules which means that the statement “1+1=2” doesn’t have any meaning outside that given by the formal system it is part of i.e. it derives all its truth and relation to other statements from the context of that system. The second interpretation of that statement is that it represents the world. It means to say that two objects retain their identity when considered together. This might hold true in some cases, but we know of situations where merging takes place and “1+1” actually results in “1”. For example, adding 1 unit of clay to another, results in one larger lump of clay. Thus, many mathematical statements such as these do not lose their context-dependence just because they happen to be expressible in a formal system.

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In the field of pure science, Newton’s Laws of Motion in Physics are considered the archetypal ‘universal truths’. But it is quite unknown that these laws hold true only for velocities that are small in relation to that of light occurring in the macroscopic world. Philosophers such as Nancy Cartwright and Richard Giere who study the process of science have documented how the application of laws of pure science to the world is not a neat, axiomatic one but grounded in a rich scientific context. Thus although a naive picture of physics characterises it as universal, the fact is that the ...

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